Practicioner-Researcher Partnerships

Practitioner-Researcher Partnerships: Building Knowledge from, in, and for Practice

Peg McCartt Hess and Edward J. Mullen, Editors
ISBN: 0-87101-252-9
285 pages
Item no. 2529


For at least three decades, social workers of all types—practitioners, administrators, researchers, and educators—have urged that more-effective partnerships be forged between the worlds of research and practice. Yet, their actions and accomplishments have lagged far behind their expectations and hopes. They have not kept pace with accelerating demands for productive partnerships and with the enviable progress made by allied helping professions. The literature reveals few examples of effective practice—research collaborations in social work. Nor does it provide much in the way of helpful discussions about the issues, principles, and practical considerations that need to be pondered if such partnerships are to be realized.

If social work practice and research do not respond soon to the growing demands for meaningful collaboration, it is possible that the profession will squander a crucial opportunity to better serve its clients, improve its effectiveness, demonstrate that it merits strong fiscal and moral support, and sustain—much less enhance—its credibility and standing in the eyes of clients, policymakers, funding organizations, and fellow professionals.

Since the 1960s social work scholars and practitioners have challenged the profession by asking whether it really "works." Isolated studies have offered reassuring evidence that social work programs and professionals are effective. Likewise, some research, but far less than needed, has provided guidance for improving service delivery programs. Nevertheless, the growing disparity between the number of practitioners and the number of researchers in social work has raised concerns about the profession's ability to achieve adequate partnerships between practice and research.

The challenge has become more pressing and of greater concern in the past three years. In 1991 the National Institute of Mental Health issued a landmark report (Task Force on Social Work Research, 1991) that cited the deficiencies and vulnerabilities of the social work profession because of its inadequate research base. So serious were its concerns that the task force considered portraying the report as one about "the crisis in contemporary social work." Instead, the task force opted for a less provocative title—Building Social Work Knowledge for Effective Services and Policies. To its credit, the task force set forth numerous recommendations aimed at promoting effective links between research and practice in social work.

More recently the Council on Social Work Education issued a new set of accreditation standards for schools of social work, scheduled to take effect in July 1995. The standards will hold all schools of social work responsible for strengthening the links between curriculum content on research and practice and for training students to evaluate the quality of their own practice through valid and reliable methodologies. Hence, what was previously exhortation and rhetoric soon will become a matter of necessity for social work education programs.

In recent years some helping professions have made rapid and remarkable strides to strengthen practice through research. The nursing profession, for example, has instituted a variety of mechanisms toward this end (Brody, 1991). It has established practice-oriented research institutes, lobbied effectively for increased government support for research, modified educational curricula, and greatly improved its research capacity. As a result, the nursing profession has increased its professional status, gained greater support from consumers and the public, and improved salaries at all levels. Now is the time for social workers to emulate this success and advance their own interests and capabilities or, at the least, protect their status in an increasingly competitive world.

Not long ago, leadership in knowledge development was presumed to come primarily from academia—from the scholars, researchers, and educators who were charged with promoting conceptual breakthroughs and creative insights for the profession. Academia remains the dominant source of knowledge development for some professions. In social work, however, the demands for accelerated knowledge development now emanate primarily from practice. Social work agencies face exigencies that require them to demonstrate not only their effectiveness but also, more important, their cost-effectiveness. The emergence of managed mental health care in response to soaring costs is forcing providers to reexamine outcome measurements and previously accepted notions of necessary length of service. Few agencies are equipped to meet current demands to prove themselves quickly and convincingly.

As a result researchers and academics increasingly are being implored to lend assistance to their beleaguered compatriots. They rapidly are being summoned away from the comforts of academe. Researchers and practitioners must respond by building productive partnerships. They must do so not only to advance knowledge building and the interests of the profession but also to advance their long-term interests. The well-being of the worlds of practice, research, and education is mutually interdependent. These areas share a common fate.

Publication of Practitioner-Researcher Partnerships: Building Knowledge from, in, and for Practice is therefore timely, relevant, and of overarching importance for the social work profession. It does not merely add one more voice calling for effective links between research and practice. Rather, it draws on the talents of contributors who consider the many variables that must be understood to bring about such partnerships. It reassures doubting skeptics and worried professionals by demonstrating with relevant examples that it is possible to forge effective partnerships between social work researchers and practitioners.

The authors examine the respective contexts of social work research and social work practice. Collaborative considerations are discussed, and diverse examples are presented. The latter describe partnerships between researchers and practitioners who have confronted the issues that so often are hypothesized but so seldom addressed. Relevant collaborations are examined over the course of the partnerships. Crucial characteristics that contribute to the survival and enhancement of collaborative relationships are identified. Key issues and obstacles are considered. Rather than presenting a single model of collaboration, the authors describe different successful partnerships. These include programs where researchers serve as consultants to practitioners, practitioners and researchers function as coinvestigators, expert practitioners are consultants to researchers, and the researchers and practitioners are the same individuals.

As it attends to myriad considerations, this book captures and reflects the complexities of real partnerships in research and practice. The individual interests and needs of collaborators are examined. Relevant roles and responsibilities are reviewed. Issues of communication and power are discussed. Matters of philosophy are pondered including those that pertain to objectivity and subjectivity, empiricism and theory, and quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Ethical, organizational, and political issues are also considered. In sum, the authors promote effective partnerships between social work research and practice by addressing in detail the complexities that must be considered if advances are to be made.

This book is the product of a bona fide long-term partnership among practice, research, and social work education. These chapters emerged from a national conference conducted under the aegis of the Center for the Study of Social Work Practice. Sponsored jointly by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services and the Columbia University School of Social Work, the center represents a concerted, timely, and stable partnership that promotes progress toward the interdependent goals of social work practice, research, knowledge development, and education. As an early product of the center, this book is a welcome step in the long march toward advancement of the social work profession and toward a strengthened capacity to serve the individuals, families, and communities who are the profession's clients.

Ronald A. Feldman, PhD
Columbia University School of Social Work

Alan B. Siskind, PhD
Executive Vice President
Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services


Brody, J. E. (1991, August 13). Beyond tender loving care, nurses are a force in research. New York Times, pp. C2—C3.

Task Force on Social Work Research. (1991). Building social work knowledge for effective services and policies: A plan for research development. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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Copyright NASW Press, 1997